Better to go to Oslo than going to war

By Jehan Perera

Sri Lanka looks set to enter a period of escalated violence in the
New Year that is to dawn. Instead of waking to the good news of
Christmas, which celebrates the belief that divinity mingles with
human beings, the early morning news was as tragic as could be.
Joseph Pararajasingham, MP for Batticaloa, whom I knew
personally, was shot dead in Batticaloa, as he took part in a
midnight Christmas service being celebrated by the Bishop of
Batticaloa, amidst hundreds of families and worshippers. With his
assassination, the demon of violence claimed the life of yet another
of Sri Lanka’s political leaders, who urged moderation, and sought
to straddle the great divide of Tamil nationalism and Sri Lankan
unity.

The late Mr. Pararajasingham was a member of the Tamil National
Alliance (TNA), that has, since the General Election of April 2004,
become a pro-LTTE party in its public stances. As a member of the
TNA he took the side of the LTTE, especially when it faced its
greatest challenge, following the breakaway of its eastern
commander, Karuna. However, there is no doubt that Mr.
Pararajasingham continued to hold fast to the non-violent political
philosophy of his party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF),
although it had merged with several other Tamil parties and
individuals into the TNA. It appears that he has paid the supreme
price for his choices.

The assassination of Joseph Pararajasingham sends a terrible
message that violence in the north east is spreading and will claim
many more lives. Only a deliberate decision can now stop the
demon of violence. If not, there will be many who are killed, to
avenge the death of others. There will also be those killed, for the
more strategic reason of fighting fire with fire, and intimidating the
people. This is a cycle that can be endless, unless, there is
commitment by at least one side to get out of the vicious cycle. The
decision of one side can lead to change in the larger environment
and thereby, in the other side. This is the religious teaching that Mr.
Pararajasingham was celebrating, at the time he was gunned down.

It is in the interests of the Government to push hard to have talks
with the LTTE, than the other way round. This is because the LTTE
is ready and willing to go to war, but the Government is not, and
should not be willing to go to war. The area of the Government’s
duty and strength is in political engagement. The delay, in politically
engaging with the LTTE, will hurt the Government more than the
LTTE. Governments, which are elected by people who want peace,
cannot escalate violence in the same way as militant organizations.
More and more people will also die meaninglessly, like Joseph
Pararajasingham has died, and large numbers of security force
personnel and civilians will also die, unless, there are peace talks
soon.

LTTE objectives

On a scale of numbers, Mr. Pararajasingham’s killing was not out of
the ordinary. In the past month or so, daily killings in the north-east
have become routine. Most of the attacks have targeted the Sri
Lankan security forces, but also civilians. The exceptions have been
the big landmine blasts. The day before Mr Pararajasingham’s
assassination, a bus carrying naval personnel was blown up by a
landmine in Mannar. At least 13 sailors died in this third such big
landmine blast since the election of Mahinda Rajapakse as
President of Sri Lanka. This has now been followed by yet another
landmine attack in Jaffna that has claimed the lives of a further 11
soldiers.

It is tragic that the sudden upsurge of violence should follow so soon
after the election of President Rajapakse. In his Heroes Day speech,
the LTTE leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan, appeared to be willing to
give the new President time, to come up with a reasonable political
framework that would meet Tamil aspirations. After his election,
President Rajapakse has been shifting his political positions in a
direction that is favourable to meeting those aspirations. But the
ongoing campaign of violence is making the President's task
increasingly difficult.

By targeting the security forces in this manner, the LTTE appears
intent on forcing a war upon the Government, without giving it
breathing space. The LTTE is making it evident that it is prepared
for war and does not seek to avoid war at all costs. Through their
repeated attacks, they are baiting the Government with an invitation
to war. But this is an invitation that the Government cannot accept.
No responsible government would wish to plunge the country into a
war, despite the provocations. But if the attacks continue, a policy of
governmental inaction will be at the cost of demoralizing and
angering the security forces.A further dilemma confronting the
Government is that the ongoing LTTE military campaign will surely
confine the movement of the security forces. Even today, the lightly
armed police find it difficult to move about the north-east without
army escort. A situation, such as occurred in 1985, can recur.
Unable to avoid LTTE ambushes, the Sri Lankan security forces
became confined to their camps. This paved the way for the LTTE
to take over the administration of big cities such as Jaffna and
Batticaloa.

Way out

The only way for the Government to avoid being forced into war, is
to engage politically with the LTTE. Fortunately, this course of
action is still available to the Government. The LTTE has agreed to
have talks on the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) with the
Government. The Government has also expressed its desire to
have such talks. But the problem now appears to be the venue for
such talks. The Government has changed its earlier stance that
talks should be within Sri Lanka, and have said they are prepared to
have talks in any Asian country. But the LTTE insists that the venue
should be Oslo. The dispute over the venue must not delay the
resumption of talks on strengthening the CFA.

The importance of political engagement is that this is the only
possible way to gain the cooperation of the LTTE. The LTTE’s
strong desire for international recognition is a factor that needs to
be built into any governmental strategy, to bring the LTTE back into
the peace process. The decision of the donor co-chairs to meet with
the LTTE leadership in Kilinochchi, followed the recent spate of
attacks that have claimed so many lives and is creating a war
psychosis among the general population. Their meeting was at the
request of the Government. Members of the donor co-chairs who
visited Kilinochchi, had reportedly observed a possibility of making
the LTTE more politically amenable to reason, through such
internationally facilitated dialogue.

Up to the present time, the LTTE has demonstrated resistance to
changing their behaviour under, either political or, military pressure.
They rely on their strength on the ground, and on the mistakes
made by the Government and its acts of bad faith, to remain
intransigent.

A policy of keeping the LTTE isolated , is likely to generate more
violence on their part, rather than less violence. It is only through
political engagement that problems of ceasefire violations,
extremism and intolerance can be addressed. The prospects of an
end to the current spate of violence will improve, the sooner the
Government and the LTTE meet at the negotiating table. The
resumption of talks should not be delayed by the disagreement over
the venue.

It is better to go to Oslo than to war. Hopefully, this is the decision
that the President will take when he comes back fortified with
support from India.
[DailyMirror]